Democrats Press Kempthorne on Planned Alaskan Lease Sale


Senate Democrats are urging Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to reconsider an upcoming lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that Bush administration critics believe will prompt damage to fragile ecosystems around Teshekpuk Lake.

In a June 29 letter, lawmakers list several concerns with the September sale to be held under the Interior Department's revised leasing plan for the reserve's 4.6 million-acre northeast section. Interior this year approved oil and gas leasing on nearly 400,000 acres that were off-limits under the Clinton administration's plan for NPR-A.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and 18 others cite "serious reservations about the impacts of the proposed Northeast NPR-A lease sale on the environment and subsistence users."

They say Interior's plan allows development of areas the department also kept off-limits under President Reagan. "The additional lands that are scheduled to be leased in September include some 200,000 acres that even Secretary James Watt didn't think should be developed in the area near Teshekpuk Lake," the lawmakers say. They ask Kempthorne to reconsider leasing previously protected areas around the lake.

Other senators signing the letter include Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Interior could not be reached for comment by press time.

Concerns about royalties, nonproductive leases

The letter also says provisions in last year's comprehensive energy bill could be interpreted to allow some royalty-free NPR-A production.

The senators write that "royalty relief may be extended in situations where it is not warranted" and that "we strongly believe the public must get a fair return for the production of federal oil and gas resources resulting from any lease sale on the NPR-A."

In addition, the letter says 2.8 million acres of the NPR-A are already under lease but that only one well was drilled in the last drilling season. They say this situation may be "exacerbated" by provisions in last year's energy bill that allow leases to be held for 30 years without producing oil and gas.

"While we appreciate that conditions for development are difficult on the North Slope, we are concerned that these provisions could be implemented by the department to allow oil and gas companies to hold leases for lengthy periods without production of the domestic oil and gas resources that Americans need," the letter states.

The battle over the northeast

The controversy over NPR-A northeast development has not been as high-profile as Capitol Hill battles over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But environmentalists say the leasing plan will fragment habitat that is vital for molting geese and other migratory birds, caribou and other species.

The northeast part of the reserve area is estimated to contain about 2.1 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and the Clinton-era plan failed to provide access to the most promising areas, according to Interior.

Interior says the northeast plan contains important protections, including limits on the acreage of "surface disturbance" allowed on lease tracts, a special "goose molting area," and limits on permanent facilities except pipelines in several habitat areas (Greenwire, Jan. 12).

But environmentalists say the plan would nonetheless harm the area's ecosystem and species, and are challenging the leasing plan in federal court (Greenwire, March 13).

The entire NPR-A sits on 23 million acres in the northwestern part of the state, to the west of Prudhoe Bay.

Copyright 2006 Greenwire. All Rights Reserved. Visit E&E Publishing for a free trial.